atw: Re: Another usage question (WAS "A software"?!)

  • From: Michael Lewis <mlewis@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 18 Jun 2017 09:49:09 +1000

I have made the point many times in the past that a chief cause is the way we are taught to write.

We learn the spoken language very much in the context of "here and now"; we hear other people asking "what's for dinner?" and making kind or unkind remarks about each other. Then we go to school, and we are asked to write when we don't really have anything to write about. We are exhorted to "get our thoughts down on paper", rather than to "get our thoughts into someone else's head". In the end, we learn writing not as a means of communication but as a means of abstraction.

Then, of course, when we do get our thoughts down on paper, they look rather ordinary. So we try to find ways of making them look more impressive - and, because we are often given a word count to achieve, that often involves finding circumlocutory ways of increasing the word count.

The next step is when we are in some kind of "formal" situation, like being interviewed or making a speech. We are aware of a need to impress, so we resort to the same tricks as we developed as beginning writers: longer words, convoluted sentences.

And it's perpetuated because we are taught to write by people who learnt the same way.

In my nearly twenty years as writing skills adviser at Macquarie Uni, my focus was consistently on getting away from "writing as abstraction" to "writing as communication". Sometimes it actually worked . . .

- Michael Lewis



On 17/06/2017 18:57, Howard Silcock wrote:

Hmm, I seem to have a knack of unwittingly sending posts that engender these protracted discussions.

I think we have to agree that formality is a force that needs to be reckoned with. I don't think I can join Warren in asserting that 'formally is nonsense' - though I might like to. My concern was trying to come to grips with what it really is. I wanted to ask the authors of that style manual to provide guidance on what types of document call for a formal style - but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how unlikely it was that they could or would do so.

So in the end I remain puzzled as to what it is that makes us want to make language so much more difficult than it needs to be. It's a bit like wondering why we have to be so deferential to the royal family.

I certainly am sticking to my guns over 'show' versus 'illustrate'. But the battle against excessive formality seems to involve many small wins and progress that seems agonisingly slow.



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